NOTE ABOUT ALL THIS: People are reading this post and then subscribing to this Substack. This is not what you should be doing. If you subscribe now to *THIS* Substack (as of 5pm EST on 11/2/21) you will not be getting the free year subscription to The Atlantic as it was meant for pre-existing subscribers. Anyhow, I’d love for you to join me at the Atlantic but you’ll have to subscribe here. If you subscribe to this Substack now you are signing up for something that no longer exists (which, if that’s your thing, be my guest!). Thanks!
Before I get extra self-indulgent, I’ll lead with the news. I’m moving Galaxy Brain from Substack over to The Atlantic. The newsletter will exist in the same form with the promise of the same amount of editorial freedom. I’ll become a contributing writer for The Atlantic and will do semi-frequent web pieces and features for the publication. Galaxy Brain newsletter pieces will also be available on The Atlantic’s website.
I apologize that this process means you’re probably going to get a couple of extra emails from The Atlantic (I’m really sorry to spam but it’s for a good reason. Your email will port right over so you can continue being a part of this community/experiment). But there’s also great news: Anyone on my current email list — free or paying— will be getting a free year-long subscription to The Atlantic. Your subscription to The Atlantic begins at the start of December. For technical reasons outside of my control, you’ll be getting some messaging emails until then.
When that runs out (or even before then, if you’re generous and want to support me…I get a nice little referral thing if you subscribe to the magazine), I hope you’ll consider paying...both for me and for literally 160-plus years of content. I will be refunding all these Galaxy Brain yearly subscriptions in a pro-rated manner starting today. It might take a couple days to take effect but I had to wait until today to start that process. Also, you can contact me anytime with my hilarious new email address: email@example.com
Now, onto the indulgent/media analysis part!
When I left the Times for Substack my departure was shoehorned into a lot of takes about the Future Of Media and the threat of newsletters to the fusty old media model. Multiple pundits suggested that I’d soon be making at least a million dollars off of sweet, sweet subscriptions. This did not happen. On the other end, a prominent grievance blogger looked at my Substack leaderboard position two weeks into this experiment and declared to his 1.5 million Twitter followers that my venture was a resounding disappointment. This was my first time being involved in the future of media conversation as a subject and it was illuminating, mostly because everyone was right and wrong at the same time!
I made my decision to start Galaxy Brain for a fairly simple reason: an independent newsletter was the best way to do the meandering, iterative journalism that I felt I needed to do in the moment of time that was April 2021. To this day, I don’t know that newsletters are the past or future of anything (maybe we’ll all be reading Galaxy Brain in Second Life in a few years). But in the lead-up to the Substack move I noticed that people tend to excuse less declarative, more nuanced, voicey writing and reporting if it shows up in an inbox or is branded on the web as part of a newsletter. A part of me was also influenced by the success of my partner, who took her newsletter and made it a full-time gig and managed to build out one of the most dynamic, least-toxic, generative communities I’ve seen or been a part of. That all seemed cool and like something to aspire to. I wasn’t sure if it would be financially lucrative or not, but I also thought it might be a good experiment to go out there and see my Real Market Value™.
In the spirit of semi-transparency (and because I think it helps others trying to do this to have comps) here’s the verdict on that.
Over seven months on Substack (I did not take a deal with the company) I made considerably less than I did working at the Times (this will be the line people quote, I guarantee, if they quote anything from this post). I grew this puppy from 0 subscribers to over 16,000. On the paid side, I got over 1,400 of you to shell out. Due to monthly subs and some generous founding members, I did manage to crack the six-figure annualized revenue number ever-so-slightly (of course I didn’t do this for a full year). Not bad! But also far from the kinds of first six month numbers of the TOP TIER ‘STACKERS. There are a number of reasons for this, I imagine, and I’ll throw them out here:
I’m worth more to a publication as part of a package of writers/reporters/thinkers than I am on my own. This makes sense to me. I don’t break tons of news these days and my work lately has been either explanatory or analytical. That may be a harder thing for somebody to pay for individually, but as a larger stable of people, I might fit more nicely into a bundle. Makes sense to me.
I’m not a trade publication and not niche enough. Many of the best, most profitable newsletters are based off a very legible beat of some kind. They’re obsessive on one thing or act as a new style of trade publication. Their value is very clear to subscribers and, if you pick a niche where people can expense you for their jobs…giddy up!
I did not do enough grievance blogging. My response post to Glenn Greenwald, which I wrote in like 27 minutes on a random afternoon was the only real bit of Discourse Feeding that I did during this run. It netted me tens of thousands of dollars in annualized revenue in 24 hours. Bananas. I fully believe (and there’s an interesting Freddie deBoer post on this) that focusing exclusively on internecine internet beefs would have been the most profitable path for Galaxy Brain. Honestly, just writing about tweets and drawing really sweeping conclusions about ‘the state of things’ seems like a solid business model. I’m not trying to sound morally superior here — I think there are ton of people who are willing to fund an aggro type of internet discourse and that’s between them and their god! It’s just not the experience I wanted for myself.
I made too much content free. I don’t know that I really believe this. From my experience, most people willing to pay for my content did so in a patronage model. Many wanted to subsidize it for others, which I thought was so rad. But it’s entirely possible that I could’ve converted another 10% of my audience by keeping most of my stuff behind closed doors. But I dunno, man. I struggle with that, especially when the paywall is for one person’s content.
I reached my Twitter promotion ceiling. This varies by the Substackers I’ve talked to but my experience is somewhat similar to what Casey Newton wrote recently. A lot of my paid subscriber growth came after getting Twitter shares. If there’s one thing that I don’t love about my personal Substack experience, it was that it still seemed to be anchored to Twitter, a platform that I owe so much to and have just the grimmest feelings about. Alas.
I launched right during peak vaccine. I noticed a real shift in the internet right as I launched this thing. People had just gotten vaxxed and it was nice outside and the internet was, for the first time in like 15 months, reasonably quiet. Pre-Delta surge, it was a ghost town out there! Subs were quiet during that period. What if I had launched during peak doomscroll (2020 election)?
I was somewhat irregular with posting. I only think I ever missed one full week but this summer I, too, was hit with the ‘Vax/Burnout/It’s Nice Out combo. It made posts a little more erratic (aka not at the same time every week). Perhaps a really standard cadence would’ve helped.
I was doing just fine and over time I would’ve built something big and durable and I left too soon. The one that shall haunt me. Galaxy Brain has grown modestly every single month of its existence. I saw some normal subscription churn (a bit less than 3%) and there was this thing that happened on the 13th of every month (I started Galaxy Brain on the 12th of April, so many initial monthly subs were up on the 12th) where I’d see my annualized revenue dip a decent bit for a bit before rebounding and it was more demoralizing than I expected. But there’s an argument to be made that if I was very patient for a few years, I could be sitting atop a one person (or multiple person) newsletter empire, making more than my market value at any publication. I think this is possible!
I don’t know whether anyone will care about the logistics of this newsletter but it’s possible some people see a move from Substack as indicative of ‘a telling new media trend.’ An observer might see this as a sign that the independent model isn’t all that lucrative or that the Substack phenomenon was a flash in the pan and soon the writers will be crawling back to big publications, hat-in-hand. I think this theoretical argument I conjured out of thin air is probably pretty reductive!
Personally, I don’t consider anything about Galaxy Brain to be a failure. My subscriber/revenue graphs only trended up and to the right month-to-month. I was able to spend time focusing exclusively on ideas I found interesting and people paid me directly to do so! How lucky can one man get?
The reason I’m moving (told you this was self-indulgent!) is not because I see Substack as an untenable platform for me or because one scenario is wildly more lucrative than the next. I’m taking Galaxy Brain to The Atlantic for the same reason as before: because I think this relationship is the place where I can do my best work in this moment. Melding Galaxy Brain with a large, existing audience that already supports thoughtful, ideas-y journalism feels like a great, sustainable way to grow this community we’ve built. I’ll get the same amount of freedom and with the magazine’s support, I’ll get a chance to take the more iterative work of Galaxy Brain and use it to inform some longer-form journalism (something I’ve missed the last few months).
Of course I’m still quite anxious about all this. Allow me to list these anxieties as well! (If this isn’t interesting skip to the section where I list my ‘Interesting Observations’…I promise this post is almost over!)
Anxiety 1: People will think I sold out. It’s very cool being on your own. Very entrepreneurial and fun! Building a big solo business, however, has never been my goal. Perhaps selfishly, I just want to be able to do the best possible work following my curiosities. I have loved being my own boss (and I still am a freelancer!) but it is nice to not obsess over the business end as much.
Anxiety 2: I’m yet again asking you all to subscribe to yet another thing. This fear is real. Honestly, I’m sorry for making you go through the hassle of taking your money out of this venture and putting it in a separate venture. That’s annoying and it’s on me. But I really do hope you take the extra 75 seconds and do this. I will do everything in my power to make Galaxy Brain worth this hassle in the coming months.
Anxiety 3: People will assume Galaxy Brain will be neutered at a major publication. I’ve been given assurances this will not be the case. I’ll still have all the same perks (Sidechannel!) and quirks (meandering essays!). The magazine has been extremely supportive of the weirdness of Galaxy Brain and it’s a big reason I even entertained the move.
Anxiety 3.5: People will think the community element will go away. Here’s what I wrote in my intro post over on my new internet property:
Part of my decision to bring this newsletter over to the Atlantic is to broaden that community. Galaxy Brain will grow as it merges organically with the magazine’s devoted readers. As such, every Galaxy Brain subscriber will continue to get access to Sidechannel. I want to make good on some of the promises I made earlier, including more live chats and, reader-willing, a book club.
At the end of the day, I feel that both Galaxy Brain and my broader journalistic ambitions can both be satisfied better by this move. I’m excited to collaborate inside an organization again while also having my own little scratchpad where I can do my thing. I consider myself extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to branch out at Substack and to come over to The Atlantic. I want to honor that opportunity and privilege by trying to continue to highlight voices and ideas in a responsible, hopefully generative way.
And now, I leave you with a few errant observations about newsletterdom.
Interesting observation 1: A lot of the people who opened my emails the most did not pay for the newsletter.
Interesting observation 2: A lot of the people who paid for the very expensive ‘Founding Member’ subscription tier hardly ever opened the emails. One billionaire signed up for Galaxy Brain early on and then…like…a day later disabled their email. Curious!
Interesting observation 3: Some people want to hold their $6 dollars/month hostage. I was reasonably surprised at some of the emails I received from people telling me that, because they were paying for me, they expected x/y/z. I very much understand wanting value in return for your money. But I thought it really interesting how a very small minority of paid subscribers lorded this over me. I tweeted once about feeling burned out and producing less and somebody emailed me to say they’d cancelled their subscription as a result (which…fine!). Anyhow, I came away with even more appreciation for creators. There’s a lot of people who think they own you because they pay the equivalent of one craft beer a month to access your work.
Interesting observation 4: Glenn Greenwald was sort of right. Independent media is maybe most lucrative for people who, for any number of reasons, don’t really have a home elsewhere. There are obviously tons of exceptions! There are a lot of people whose work would be welcome in major publications everywhere who succeed as independents. But I do think having exhausted your options by constantly alienating people or getting kicked out of other places can help.
Take Alex Berenson, “The Pandemic’s Wrongest Man.” Alex doesn’t have a lot of options, publication-wise from the mainstream media. I’m sure there are plenty of Infowars-y sites that would take him and that he’d do well there an earn some money. But he’d also have to take on the liability of being full-MAGA, which I don’t think he is. Being independent is a far better deal for people like this. Anyhow, it seems Berenson is making a solid amount of money. He has over 10,000 paid subscribers, which puts his annualized revenue floor at $720,000. There are more expensive tiers, so I’m guessing he’s making more than that. It’s a lot of money for posts like this:
Weirder yet, Berenson is not on any of the Substack leaderboards, despite being one of probably only about 15 publications to top 10,000+ paid subscribers. That’s curious to me.
For people whose work is either too wonky or too reactionary, or too progressive or too reckless or too ‘whatever’ to be palatable to a mainstream media organization, independent projects like a newsletter fit. People are more willing to pay for content that wouldn’t exist elsewhere. And, if it’s grievance-based, there’s some amount of ‘Discourse Funding’ that’s going on. I pay this person to keep pissing off these people.
In some cases, this dynamic allows new, fresh, and exciting voices to emerge. But I’d say that the way Substack works now, there’s a massive structural advantage for voices who’ve already had big platforms to come in and grow louder. There are exceptions to this rule but generally, it seems much harder for people who didn’t have that platform to begin with to find audience when they go independent with a newsletter. I do think newsletter discovery is in its early days and I hope more people work to surface the good stuff. It would be a shame if newsletters were primarily a lucrative exit strategy for cantankerous, big-name personalities who’ve pissed off so many people that nobody wants to work with them anymore.
But, anyhow, Glenn was sort of right. Substack has offered me the ability to follow my own passions and curiosities (I’m so grateful for that) but my work is probably not so insanely different from what I’d be doing in mainstream orgs and I think that can factor into who pays.
Ok! That’s that. This has been quite a run. You confidence, your kind words, your sharing on social media, and your subscriber dollars are the only thing that powered this experiment. I’m indebted to you all and extremely humbled by it. I hope you’ll join me over at The Atlantic. I will never forget all the people (including the fine folks at Substack, who genuinely are working to help writers make money and do their thing) who’ve helped and supported me these last seven months. I’m humbled and forever thankful to you all. Thank you. THANK YOU. T H A N K Y O U .
Smell ya later (fondly),
Thanks for taking the time to write this up, Charlie. As an independent journalist on the platform, it's really helpful to have real benchmarks from other writers. Best of luck at the Atlantic, looking forward to reading you there!
I'm a long-time subscriber to The Atlantic who really misses the blogging era (esp. Coates and his "horde"). I look forward to seeing you there.